My Solar Eclipse Experience Gave Me So Much More Than Photos

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine

It’s the morning of April 8, 2024. My camera equipment is packed in their bags, and vital Sun rotation information and eclipse timing information are scratched in a notepad. Somehow, despite years of notice about this historic total solar eclipse, the first to hit my home state of Maine since 1963 and the last until 2079, I’m committing the cardinal sin of photography: I’m trying to photograph a once-in-a-lifetime event with nebulous plans and no scouting.

If today is a photographic failure, which is an uncomfortably real possibility, it will all come back to my decision to fly by the seat of my pants. So, what the hell am I thinking?

Photos Versus Experience: A Photographer’s Greatest Battle

I’ve long subscribed to the “photo over experience” mentality. In most cases, that has served me well and I’m happy to make that choice and prioritize photography. It has enabled me to find photo opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have.

If a place doesn’t have good photographic prospects, I will rarely go. If the light or weather didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, my experience of a place is tinged with disappointment. On innumerable occasions, I’ve left an otherwise beautiful location feeling let down rather than happy to have just been there.

And until last night, April 7, the eve of the eclipse, these same thought processes led me to plan a specific eclipse photo in Stonington, Maine, at one of my favorite coastal locations. I dialed in the field of view, precise angle, and exactly how to frame the shot to get the eclipse from start to finish, nearly perfectly from edge to edge. I had the diagrams, the math, the time charts, everything. I was good to go.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
My dad and I did a lot of thinking about the partial eclipse composite scene in Stonington, Maine. While the precise plans were tossed out the window, some of the information did prove helpful elsewhere.

There was one nagging problem, though. Stonington is outside the path of totality. And yes, I knew that the entire time: I was planning a partial eclipse composite. I was perfectly content to do so because I was confident in the composition and the overall photograph.

Having lived in Maine, I was also very confident that there was no point in making grand, extravagant eclipse plans because it’s April, which almost invariably means cloudy weather. Based on historical data, the chances of good viewing conditions were about 30%.

How Maine ended up with some of the clearest skies on the entire path of totality is very surprising. My ability to talk myself out of long-term planning because of pessimism about the outcome is something I’ll need to consider more later, but I digress.

What Changed and Why Am I Scrambling?

Thanks to some last-minute reading, I was suddenly much less confident that I’d be happy with my choice to photograph the partial eclipse.

I’m unsure if I hadn’t been reading the right things in preparation for the eclipse or if I had just unconsciously ignored stuff because I already had a specific shot in mind outside the path of totality. Still, yesterday, I “suddenly” came face to face with sentiments like:

“The difference between 99% and 100% totality is literally night and day.”

“If you can make it into the path of totality, you absolutely should.”

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
My GF 100-200mm lens doesn’t have a ton of reach, but with a bit of cropping, I still captured a decent shot of totality.

“A total eclipse is a life-changing experience.”

“Partial eclipses are neat, but a total solar eclipse is magical.”

A sense of dread started creeping in — fears that I would regret not seeing the total solar eclipse with my own eyes, even if my photography suffered for it.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
Some notes for the last-minute plans for Patten, Maine. They’re not much, but they’re something. Impossible to capture are the other frantic hours my dad and I spent scouring satellite data, cross-checking Sun timing and rotation data, and mapping potential shots.

Besides, April isn’t northern Maine’s most photogenic season. It’s a generally chilly, drab time of year. For a state known for its rugged coastline, verdant summer greens, and brilliant fall foliage, April offers none of that, and the path of totality in Maine is a long way from the ocean.

With that in mind, I believed “a partial solar eclipse at a beautiful coastal spot” was the best choice photographically. But what about personally?

Given that I’m currently sitting in the passenger seat of my parent’s Subaru Outback, putting thoughts (worries) to digital paper and staring at a northbound (eclipse-bound) line of traffic on I-95, it’s clear where I ultimately landed. I’ve never seen so many cars heading north from Bangor.

The traffic dampens our hopes of finding an available good photo spot, especially for my dad and I, ever the realists. My mom plays the role of optimist, a helpful counterbalance.

I may return home in the late afternoon with no good photos, and it will be entirely my fault, but I’m banking on having a positive experience and memories that will last a lifetime. This choice is out of character for me, but it’s the right one. I’m sure of it.

I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse, and neither have my aging parents. While I anticipate being around for the next one in the United States, I won’t take this opportunity for granted.

The Eclipse

Now it’s 6:30 PM, about three hours after totality. We’ve been in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour and a half, and I’m still coming down from the experience of seeing the total solar eclipse. It was genuinely indescribable, but I shall do my best.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
While I’m staring at my camera here during totality, I did take some time to soak in the entire scene.
Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
This single, barely-processed frame shows the Sun’s relative position and size during totality. I took some artistic liberties during compositing to capture how the scene “felt” during the eclipse.

It got weird in the minutes just before totality. The light was strange, the shadows looked alien, and everything felt chilly. The horizon began to get a splash of color, dark blue and yellow, greenish and odd.

Then, with the anticipation palpable, totality began. It was like nature flipped a switch. An orange glow leaped from the horizon in every direction, and the Sun was amazing. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, a remarkable cosmic coincidence that was even more beautiful than rare.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine

Nearly frozen in awe, I started shooting. It was time to work. Despite significant planning concerning cameras and all that, everything still felt chaotic and frantic for the roughly three-and-a-half minutes of totality. Photographically, I got some, but not all, of what I wanted. Totality was gone in a flash — the fastest 210 seconds of my life.

Thankfully, I forced myself to take the time to look at my surroundings with my own eyes, and I’m glad I did.

There was a remarkable shimmer effect on the surface of the snow to my right. I could see Venus in the daytime sky, and a few stars were visible. It was just a genuinely stunning sky. None of these were in my camera’s somewhat limited purview, and I missed a couple of shots I had wanted to get by stepping back for a bit, but it was well worth it.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
My dad shooting totality.
Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
Credit: Bruce Gray

The People Made the Experience So Much Better

When we pulled up to the location that my dad and I “scouted” as best we could on Google Maps and using various other sources, I was surprised to see vehicles lined up for about two and a half miles surrounding the scenic overlook’s small parking area.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
This quick iPhone shot shows the fantastic view we had in Patten, Maine for the historic total solar eclipse.

Walking toward the jam-packed scenic overlook, hoping to squeeze in somewhere, we noticed that the farm on the left-hand side of the road had a few people milling around, maybe five or six. I figured they must know the property owner personally — in rural Maine, everyone knows everyone. And besides, if this were a place where some random passers-by could view the eclipse, there’d already be a bunch of people in there.

But my dad recognized the opportunity, crossed the road, and started chatting with an elderly man sitting atop his four-wheeler. He appeared to be the landowner, complete with a charming cowboy-style cap. Sure enough, it was his farm — and his nearly 600 acres of land stretching beyond where the eye could see.

My mom and I could hear the stranger laughing from across the road.

“Whenever your dad talks to someone, people are laughing. Have you ever noticed that?” my mom asked me.

A few minutes and more chuckles later, my dad returned to the roadside and beckoned us across. We were in.

“Go anywhere you’d like,” the friendly man, Donis, told us. And so we did, trekking down the hill a bit to find a nice spot with a good view of Mt. Katahdin and the sky.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine
PhotoPills, seen on the left, was hugely help when planning. On the right, the red dot is where I hoped to end up in Patten, Maine, while the blue dot is where we (luckily) ended up.

“You’ve got one of the best views in the entire state,” my dad remarked to the farmer. “You must enjoy this.”

“More these days,” the man, who appeared to be in his 70s, replied. He’s lived on the property since the 1960s, having grown up about 10 miles north. “I never used to look,” Donis admitted.

I couldn’t have picked a better spot in the entire state to have experienced the eclipse.

We shared our spot with two other people, a high school astronomy teacher who let us look through his telescope whenever we wanted and his wife, a pediatric nurse. On a once-bustling and vast cow farm in Patten, Maine, a town of just 881 people (and probably more livestock), strangers became friends, with new bonds forged in a remarkable collective experience.

My mom, Glenys, took this snap showing the view, while I was busy messing with my camera equipment and dialing in my settings as best I could before the show began.

A vast crowd of onlookers hooted and hollered from the scenic overlook, which was full to bursting. The sounds of the masses helped add something to the experience, but I am grateful that my parents and I were able to enjoy it from a quieter vantage.

Jeremy Gray -- April 8, 2024 -- Total solar eclipse, Patten, Maine

Final Thoughts

Given the last-minute change of plans, I got a much better outcome than I expected. It was a day I will never forget.

I’m immensely grateful that I have photos from the eclipse I’m proud of and thankful to have met some wonderful people.

Image credits: All photos © Jeremy Gray, unless otherwise noted.